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Where are they now?: Ray Christensen

07/07/2004, 12:00am CDT
By Rob Litt

Where Are They Now?

His career spanned more than five decades and included 510 Gopher football games and 1,309 Gopher basketball games. He announced legendary Gopher football players such as Bobby Bell, Sandy Stephens, and Carl Eller as well as Gopher hoopsters Lou Hudson, Jim Brewer, and Kevin McHale.

For some, Ray Christensen epitomizes Gopher sports history, as he has been as much a part of the Gopher athletic department over a 50-year period as anyone. While Goldy the Gopher himself has gone through some changes, and Williams Arena was renovated and Memorial Stadium demolished, one thing stayed constant from 1951-2001 "“ Christensen was the voice of Gopher sports and, in turn, touched many generations of Gopher fans all-the-while announcing many of the greatest moments in Gopher sports history.

After his duty in the Army during World War II, Christensen began his radio career on May 1, 1946 when he began with the Radio Guild for KUOM, the University of Minnesota's campus radio station. While beginning his broadcast career, he was also attending the 'U' to study broadcasting, so he could "œlearn to do what he was already doing."

A 1949 graduate of the University of Minnesota, Christensen was always a big sports fan and often spent hours memorizing statistics in the Sunday Peach Section of the Star Tribune. With KUOM serving as the "œHome to the Gophers", Christensen hoped to utilize his passion for the Gophers and his improving radio broadcast career as the voice of the Gophers. Heading into to the 1951 season, Christensen hoped to be the play-by-play announcer of the Gopher football team, and not until the Monday before the season opener versus Washington did Christensen learn that he would be the "œVoice of the Gophers." Five years later, Christensen added Gopher basketball to his plate, which he went on to announce for 45 years.

Christensen's legendary career includes inductions into the Gopher Athletic Hall of Fame as well as the College Football Hall of Fame. In addition, the Gopher athletic department honored him in his final basketball season with "œRay Christensen Night", where his likeness now hangs from The Barn's rafters with the likes of Hudson, McHale, Brewer, and Mychal Thompson.

Christensen's final football season was the 2000 campaign, and his last basketball season was the 2000-01 season. A few significant statistics that put his legendary career in perspective:
  • Eight Gopher football and nine Gopher basketball coaches went through the program during Christensen's tenure
  • His 510 football games equals 30,600 regulation minutes
  • His 1,309 basketball games equals 52,360 regulation minutes
  • Ten United States presidents served our country during the Christensen era
Still a passionate Gopher sports fan, Christensen recently took time out of his summer to chat with about his legendary career, announcing the 1972 brawl versus Ohio State, his thoughts on the greatest Gophers to pass through during his tenure, and what the 'U' means to him and his family. What do you remember about your first Gopher football game?

Ray Christensen: I really wanted to do the play-by-play for the Gopher football team, and I really worked hard in preparing for my auditions prior to the season. The week leading up to the season opener I still did not know if I received the job, so I called the secretary for Ike Armstrong, who was the Athletic Director for the Gophers at the time, and she told me I had the job.

My first year I did not get paid, but I did get $2.50 per meal on the road. The second year they paid me $25 per game.

Heading into that first game I was very nervous but excited. My friends and family all listened to that first broadcast, and they told me I did a great job. They probably would have told me that regardless of how I did though, but it was a lot of fun. What type of broadcast work did you do besides your work with the Gophers?

Christensen: Initially I did the Radio Guild for KUOM. As my career progressed, I also conducted a series of interviews with prominent Minnesotans from all walks of life as well as over 1,000 newscasts. I usually had at least one partner in my football broadcasts and was always a one-man operation in basketball. Did you have any mentors or role models that you tried to emulate in your broadcasting work?

Christensen: I did not have a specific person that I tried to copy, but I have always enjoyed listening to different announcers in every sport. It's a lot of fun to hear how they word phrases or emphasize different aspects of sport. Are you able to listen to the current WCCO Gopher announcing teams?

Christensen: Oh yes, I have heard them quite a bit. I really like what Dave Lee brings to the table, and Kevin Lynch is also doing a great job. It's always fun to have a former athlete on the radio. How was it for you to announce the Rose Bowl?

Christensen: Unfortunately I was not able to announce the Gophers in the Rose Bowl. At that time, WCCO had the local broadcast rights to the Rose Bowl and the Gophers were on WLOL, so the national broadcast was picked up here in Minnesota. That would have been fun to do. I did get to announce quite a few Gopher bowl games through the years and obviously announced the Final Four in 1997. What was your most memorable Gopher football game to announce?

Christensen: I think the two that stick out more than any other are the last second wins at Michigan in 1986 and the Penn State win at Happy Valley. The Michigan win was incredible, as they were first or second in the nation at the time, and we absolutely shocked them. I have never heard 100,000+ fans so silent. Rickey Foggie's run to set up Chip Lohmiller was so much fun to announce, and then Chip nailed the kick and the stadium sat silent. The Penn State win was such a big win for Coach Mason and the program. When Arland Bruce caught that lucky break, my blood pressure went through the roof, and then Dan Nystrom hit it through the uprights! What was your most memorable Gopher basketball game to announce?

Christensen: There are a few that stick out, and quite a few of them are from the Final Four season. The two most incredible games were the wins in San Antonio. That Clemson game [double-overtime in the Sweet 16] was one of the greatest sporting events I have ever been a part of. I don't know how the team pulled it out, but it was a remarkable game. Then against UCLA, we were down at half and in the first part of the second half, and we came storming back. That was an incredible weekend. Also from that year was the crazy comeback at Indiana. I feel like that last minute was as incredible of a one-minute of play that I have ever announced.

One other game that was very memorable to me was the year after the Final Four. We started out very poorly in the Big Ten season but turned things around and set up an important few games in the Big Ten Tournament. We first knocked off Northwestern in the first round to make our record 14-14, and we had to finish at least .500 to qualify for the NIT. In the second round we knocked off first-seeded Michigan State, which guaranteed us a spot in the NIT, which we ultimately won. After the win against UCLA when we qualified for the Final Four, you capped off the final seconds with "œThe road to Indianapolis is now paved with GOLD." Was this something you had prepared before the broadcast?

Christensen: People have asked me a lot about that line over the past few years. I guess it struck an accord for many people. Often times I will think of a line or statement in case a big event happens, but this time I did not and it just came to me as the final seconds ticked off the clock. How did you handle the 1972 brawl versus Ohio State at The Barn?

Christensen: That was a very ugly moment in our program's history. Heading into that game and in the first half there was an odd feeling throughout The Barn that I could feel the tension just really heating up. Coach Musselman had the guys really fired up coming out of the half, and I started to prepare myself as an announcer for an ugly second half and that is exactly what happened.

When the fighting itself started, I had to remove all emotion from the situation and just report what I was watching as opposed to showing any sort of favoritism, as it was definitely an ugly scene for Gopher fans. After that night I received many letters of which most of them were very supportive for the tone I took, but there were a few upset Gopher fans that felt I should have been more positive towards us. Many of those people that sent the negative letters later wrote me again after their emotions died down telling me that I did a good job calling that scene. Were there any players or coaches that you were close with over the years?

Christensen: One of the aspects of this job that I enjoyed most was the relationships I developed with the players, coaches, administrators, and fans. It has truly been a special experience. Through the years I got to know some better than others, and the players and coaches that I got to know the best are Paul Giel, the McNamara brothers, Judge Dixon, Tyrone Carter, Bobby Bell, Carl Eller, John-Blair Bickerstaff, and many others. Who was the best Gopher football player during your tenure?

Christensen: In football it is hard to pinpoint one player being better than another, as you cannot really compare an offensive player to a defensive one. One thing I will say is that we had a string in the early 1960s when Tom Brown and Bobby Bell won the Outland Trophy and Carl Eller should have as well but they didn't want to give it to a Gopher three years in a row. That is a remarkable stretch though. Who was the best Gopher basketball player during your years as an announcer?

Christensen: People ask me this often, and it is hard as we've had so many great players go through the program. But if I have to pick one player and one player only, it has to be Lou Hudson. He was so dominant, and he truly made everyone on the team better. What do you remember about the last football and basketball games you announced?

Christensen: It was a disappointing night to be honest, as we lost to North Carolina State in the Bowl Game in Miami. We had a big halftime lead and we blew the lead in the second half. The thing I knew I was going to miss most about my football announcing was the relationship I had with Dave Mona and Darrell Thompson. Those two guys were such fun to work with.

With basketball it was a bit more difficult as we were in the NIT that year, so I truly did not know which night was going to be my last. It ended up being a very tough and hard fought loss to Tulsa in overtime after an incredible comeback. After the game I was starting to wrap up my final thoughts and was doing a good job of not getting emotional, and I figured I would sign off one last time without any true emotion. Coach Monson and the team always sang The Rouser to the student section after each game win or lose, and that night Coach Monson had the team sing it to me and not the student section, so even though their season had just ended, the guys on the team came over to my side of the court and sang The Rouser in my direction, and I got really emotional. It was a very special moment. What did it mean to you to have Ray Christensen Night?

Christensen: It was humbling to say the least. I was happy that WCCO and the 'U' let me go out on my own terms, but I did not expect them to honor me like they did. It is very special to have my picture hanging from The Rafters. Gopher fans, players, and coaches have been so wonderful to me and my family through the years, and the Maroon and Gold have been an important part of our lives. It has been a very special relationship. Now we will play a word association game where I will throw out a series of names, and please say the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear them:

Christensen: Sounds good, fire away.

Sandy Stephens: Built like a bull, and there was no better competitor than Sandy. I once saw him in a flag football game on campus, and he treated it like it was a game against Wisconsin.

Bobby Bell: His physique was amazing. He could have played any position on the field and would have been a star at any one of them.

Murray Warmath: A tireless worker on and off the field.

Carl Eller: I am fortunate to call him a friend. A great person and player.

Marion Barber II: When I hear his name, all I think of is power sweep to the right. Man did he run that well. Outstanding special teams player in the NFL.

Tony Dungy: He was a true student of the game. He was always breaking down game tape even in the offseason. Anyone that knew him could tell he would be a coach one day.

Darrell Thompson: Darrell is such a wonderful person. I take pride in calling him a friend. As great of a running back as he is a person.

Rickey Foggie: A competitor who made a lot out of a little. He had gifted athleticism, but he turned it to a level most never imagined possible.

Tyrone Carter: I have never seen a harder worker than Tyrone. He was pushing himself every second of every game and every practice. He earned his success from hard work.

Lou Hudson: Best all around player this program has ever seen.

Bill Musselman: The single hardest worker I have ever met in regards to game preparation. He also had a one-track mind. He loved to win.

Jim Brewer: Best rebounder this program has ever seen and a great scorer.

Kevin McHale: You could see his potential in college, but he didn't reach it until he was in the NBA. He was a great ambassador for the University of Minnesota.

Mychal Thompson: Most fluid and smooth of all the Gophers. He made everything look effortless.

Trent Tucker: If only the three-point line had existed when he was a Gopher. He could shoot lights out.

Willie Burton: He played for the perfect coach for his type of personality and game. He and Clem Haskins had a special relationship, as Clem really knew how to push his buttons.

Richard Coffey: One of my all-time favorite Gophers. He was so determined to be a great player, and he lived up to his own expectations.

Bobby Jackson: Bobby is an all-around winner. If he missed three or four shots in a row, I always knew that if the game was on the line that he'd come through for us. He had that stigma about him unlike any other Gopher I can remember.

Talk about the legendary Ray Christensen in The Hole.

Tag(s): Where Are They Now?